Position breakdown: Tight ends
Tight end ranks right there with the quarterbacks as the position with the fewest players to work with, but second-year coach Larry Scott has a group that is key to achieving the offensive balance the Bulls seek this season. The tight ends are an extension of the offensive line, crucial in establishing a power running game, but also give Matt Grothe another target as receivers stretch defenses downfield.
THE STARTER: Senior Cedric Hill, perhaps as much as any USF player aside from George Selvie, can make a case for being the best in the Big East at his position. The conference has a lot of new starters at the position, so the Bulls have an advantage in Hill, who enters the season with 18 career starts and 44 career catches.
Last season was Hill's first as an everyday starter, and while he had more catches (23) than in his first two years combined, there's certainly room for growth in 2008. A converted receiver who has worked hard to get his 6-foot-3 frame up to 244 pounds, he should be a red-zone option, certailny more than his one touchdown last season. Hill is skilled enough to line up as a receiver, creating mismatches, but has also worked on perfecting his blocking.
THE REST: There's not an obvious "NEXT IN LINE" here, so we'll go straight to the other tight ends. USF used a fair amount of two-tight-end sets last season, so the second tight end will see plenty of game action. Last season, Ben Busbee was that player, starting four games, but he seems to have been passed by Trent Pupello, a transfer from Florida who was granted a hardship waiver and can play this fall.
Pupello was the fourth or fifth tight end on arrival, enough so that USF looked at him as a defensive tackle or offensive center. He's stuck at tight end, and a strong preseason has vaulted him to No. 2 at the position -- offensive coordinator Greg Gregory went so far as to call him a "co-starter" with Hill at one point. Pupello's size -- he's listed at 276 pounds -- make him a natural run blocker.
We haven't heard much about Busbee this fall, but his experience alone puts him next in line, ahead of sophomore Andrew Ketchel, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who has added considerable weight in his two years on campus. He's still waiting for his first catch, but must have had good hands, as he caught 32 passes as a senior at Choctawhatchee High.
Those four might be the only tight ends to play this season, as the plan is to redshirt true freshmen Jeff Hawkins and Andreas Shields. Of the two, Hawkins is arguably ahead, just because of his size -- 6-4, 247 pounds, as opposed to Shields, who is listed at 6-6, 220. Both will be busy in the weight room this fall. Sophomore Quincy Okolie, who will take a medical redshirt because of a back condition this season, will return to tight end for the 2009 season.